31 July, 2010

Day 22 - Battle of Britain

As July draws to a close, it is the Axis press which seems more interested in preparations for the invasion which, their sources claim, are nearly complete.  There is also conveyed views from German and Italian travellers in Spain that Franco intends to mount an attack on Gibraltar to coincide with an invasion.

The official German news agency issues a statement rejecting any idea that "the war against England is being waged only half-heartedly". It adds that, since the fall of France, purely military considerations had been eclipsed by political ones, especially as no important operations were observable. Germany was waging war against England with as much determination and certainty of victory as she did against Poland and France.

Nevertheless, the news that Hitler is ready to sail only gets limited coverage in the British media. And Home Intelligence observes that these reports arouse only "limited" public interest.

Back in the Berghof, Raeder is meeting Hitler to give him a personal account of the highly pessimistic appraisal by the Naval Staff. Amongst those present at the meeting (above - a typical meeting between Hitler and his staff) are the Chiefs of Armed Forces High Command (OKW) and the Army High Command (OKH). But Seelöwe is not high on the agenda. According to General Franz Halder, the Chief of Staff of the OKH, Hitler is looking at the big picture.

Britain, says Hitler, is reliant on Russia and the United States. But, he says, if Russia drops out of the picture, America is lost to Britain. Elimination of Russia would tremendously increase Japan's power in the Far East, forcing the US to focus its attention and resources there. Therefore, Russia was the factor upon which Britain is relying most.

The logic, from Hitler's perspective, was self evident. He knows Churchill's game - to bring the US into the war. Britain will fight for as long as there is a chance of that happening. If Russia is smashed, the chance disappears. Russia's destruction, therefore, must be made a part of this struggle. Effectively, destroying Russia has to be part of the strategy to beat Britain. And Spring 1941 is the time to take on Russia, with the state "shattered to its roots with one blow."

To that extent, Raeder's message is of no great importance, but the Navy chief gives it anyway. The earliest the Kriegsmarine can be ready for an invasion, he says, is 15 September. When he re-emphasises that air superiority is essential, Hitler agrees, saying that a "definite decision" would be made on the date of an invasion after the Luftwaffe had made an intensified attack on Southern England. If the Luftwaffe failed to achieve considerable destruction of the RAF, and harbours and naval forces, there would be a case for postponing the invasion until May 1941.

All of this, though, is fantasy. Hitler has already set out a game plan which makes the destruction of Russia part of the strategy for conquering Britain. The defeat of Russia is now a precursor to defeating Britain, and the Russian campaign is due to start in the Spring of 1941. The Germans cannot also tackle Britain at the same time.

The only possible interpretation of this exchange, therefore - which is consistent with subsequent events - is that Hitler has no real expectations of British defeat until after Russia has been destroyed, some time in the Autumn of 1941. But, in the unlikely event that the Luftwaffe achieves a decisive blow, then an "invasion" can proceed earlier. But it is no longer really an invasion - more of an uncontested occupation of shattered Britain, torn apart by Luftwaffe bombs. To that that extent, Seelöwe has been turned into a transport and logistics exercise. There is no credible case for a contested invasion.

From a transatlantic perspective, things look very different. AP writer Kirke L Simpson offers his own views about the prospects of an invasion, in the context of the "sudden concentration of German air attacks on Dover". This, he writes – specifically for American readers - has stirred world-wide conjecture that Britain's hour of ultimate trial has come, with Dover as a prospective bridgehead. Yet, Simpson adds, the circumstances of the Nazi bombardment, as officially reported in Berlin, sharply conflict with that impression.

What then follows is an appreciation of the difficulties which face the Germans, not least the observation that, if the German plan to land masses of troops at Dover port, blocking its entrance by sinking enemy ships in the fairway would create more difficulties for the invaders than the defenders. By this means, Simpson ventures that the British might deny the enemy use of the sheltered waters of Dover or any other narrow-mouthed harbour on the English Channel.

Then he notes that a landing on England's open beaches would be even more difficult. They are unsheltered from the swells of the shallow Channel and North Sea – waters which are set rolling by even a minor conflict between wind and sea currents. And all of this, of course, enhances the importance of the weather factor. Any signs of a prolonged spell of calm on the Channel probably would raise greater fears in Britain than the intensified air bombardment of Dover and its vicinity.

Yet, for all that, Simpson also tells us that German propaganda on a world-wide front is doing its best to convince everybody that the assault on England will be over and another smashing Nazi victory recorded by 1 October or thereabouts.

Just to confuse the issue, though, an anonymous Associated Press report conveys details of an article in Il Giornale D'Italia - another intervention by its editor Virginio Gayda, the man known to be close to Mussolini. Gayda cautions that the invasion of the British Isles would not be "a simple military advance". England would probably not be invaded until the British people had been weakened by bombs and blockade.

The tactics of attrition must be used, Gayda had written – constant air attacks to demoralise the population and destroy island defences; attacks on ships bringing supplies to England, and a strong submarine blockade and a weakening of empire defences in the Mediterranean.  As far as it goes, this is the template for the campaign to come.

The British, however, if the newspapers are any guide, are more interested in the "Japanese prisoners" crisis, with the Daily Express giving the issue banner headline treatment. The arrest of British citizens by the Japanese seems to be of some considerable concern, not least because it is tied in with the "Burma road" question, with its shades of appeasement. "We should never have given into the Japanese", is a predominant theme of public discussion, according to Home Intelligence reports.

In England it is a typical summer day, warm with clear skies - perfect invasion weather. To those who could get access to the the beaches, an increasing number of which had been cordoned off in expectation of that invasion, bathing was an option. And that morning, a Sunderland of No. 10 Sqn Royal Australian Air Force, based at Mount Batten, is escorting the merchant cruiser Mooltan, out from Plymouth after a refit.

Three and a half hours out, at around, 08:55hrs, the pilot, Flt Lt Bill Garing (pictured) - nicknamed "Bull" for his voice, not his size - sights a formation of five Ju 88 bombers heading for his ship. He flies his heavy flying boat at them aggressively and, faced with an aircraft nicknamed the "flying porcupine", the Germans decide that discretion is the better part of valour. They retire. Garing is awarded a DFC for the action.

No. 10 Squadron RAAF is an interesting unit. Established on 3 September 1939 by Australian personnel already in England, they take delivery of new Short Sunderland flying boats (pictured top). Attached to the RAF, they are the sole RAAF presence in the European theatre until 1940 when the first Australians trained under the Empire Air Training Scheme began to arrive. When the squadron is officially disbanded on 26 October 1945, its aircraft have flown 4,553,860 nautical miles, undertaken 3177 operational flights and sunk five submarines.

Back on the last day of July 1940, the only other morning fighting is over the Channel at 11:00hrs, when Ju 87s attack small convoys. Soon after midday, a number of German reconnaissance aircraft are detected just off the south coast. No aircraft on either side are shot down.

In the afternoon, Dover is as busy as ever. At 14:30hrs, ten Me 109s which had been patrolling the Calais area, cross the Straits and drop bombs which cause damage to dock equipment. Fighters chase the enemy aircraft towards France but do not make contact.

An hour later, at 15:30hrs, a formation is detected off the coast of Dover. No. 74 Squadron Hornchurch (Spitfires) is ordered to intercept. The raiders are Me 109s and a dogfight ensues. Four Messerschmitts are damaged and believed to have crashed on their way back to their bases. No. 74 Squadron loses two aircraft. One is badly damaged and crashes on landing. The pilot is unhurt.

At 16:02hrs, one raid of 6+ flew towards Dungeness, turns west and bombs a steamer (which is damaged) off Sandgate. At 17:30 hours, three Squadrons are sent up to patrol the Dover area. No. 41 Squadron claims one He 113, which is confirmed - even though no such aircraft exists or has ever been in service. Another He 59  is downed in the Channel, this one by No. 615 Sqn. No. 501 Squadron loses one Hurricane.

Bomber Command despatches 28 Blenheims to carry out daylight raids on enemy airfields and industrial targets in Germany. Because of the lack of suitable cloud cover - the aircraft relying on this to protect them from fighters - only eleven actually bomb. One fails to return. Six Fairey Battles of No. 12 Squadron are detailed to attack invasion ports. One is shot down by an RAF night fighter and crashes into the sea off Skegness. A Hudson and two Hampdens are also lost.

The fate of Hampden L4085 of No. 44 Sqn is unusual. Flown from RAF Waddington by Sgt E D Farmer, 26, on a night mining operation in German waters, the pilot gets lost on his return and flies clear across northern England before ditching in Cardigan Bay at 06:30hrs on 1 August. Two crew are killed.

There is no evidence of an RAF search and rescue effort but a body is picked up by the Aberystwyth lifeboat, the Frederick Angus, at 07:26hrs. The motor boat Emerald Star joined the search and recovered the two survivors, Sgt R D Hobbs, navigator/bomber and Sgt D Seager, radio operator, plus a body. The two dead are pilot Sgt Farmer and Sgt K Wood, 29, the rear gunner.

On the day, Fighter Command fly only 365 sorties, losing three machines against five for the Germans. Add Bomber Command and the RAF have lost eight machines, changing completely the arithmetic of advantage. On the month, sources differ but Wood & Dempster put Fighter Command losses at 145, against Luftwaffe losses of 270. But Bomber and Coastal Commands have lost at least 110 aircraft, putting the RAF/Luftwaffe balance at 255/270.

Furthermore, British losses to air action include eighteen merchant vessels and four destroyers. But those are direct losses. Ten merchant vessels are lost to mines, some of which may have been laid by aircraft. Thirty-eight merchant ships are damaged and three destroyers have sustained serious damage, plus a depot ship. Three armed trawlers have been lost to direct air action, and another two to mines.

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